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Marsha Ambrosius Flaunts Her Rap&B Bona Fides on ‘Friends & Lovers’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: July 15, 2014
Label: RCA

Ever since her days adding soulful gravitas to poet Natalie Stewart’s gravely raps as part of the early ’00s British neosoul duo Floetry, Marsha Ambrosius has always stood out. Since the group’s dissolution, Ambrosius has simmered below the surface, writing songs for Alicia Keys, Jamie Foxx and Michael Jackson (the incredible, probably underrated “Butterflies”), and ghosting in Mary J. Blige’s waning stead with melty, emotional vocals on tracks by all the rappers, like The Game, Common, Freeway and Nas. Though she didn’t musically break like Blige, Ambrosius is canonical to rap&b. Even Kanye called her up for a feature on Cruel Summer.

Friends & Lovers is her second studio album, following 2011’s well-received Late Nights & Early Mornings. Ambrosius has always been dependable, with an unruffled, keenly London style: her pitch perfect warble and cool demeanor eliminated a rapper’s need to clear soul samples, and her esoteric, personable approach to songwriting – with an emphasis on elegant, Quiet Storm sensuality – made her work distinct.

Like the cover of Portishead’s “Sour Times” on Late Nights, a do-over anchors Friends & Lovers: Sade’s “Stronger Than Pride,” featuring a brawny verse from Dr. Dre, and set to the stark drip of DJ Premier’s beat for Jeru the Damaja’s “Come Clean.” She might have taken the rap bonafides a bit too far with “Stronger” – especially considering she’s respected enough to cover Sade – but much of the rest of Friends & Lovers is grown and sexy cool.

Ambrosius peaks when showing off her textural and rhythmic range. She’s androgynous, sounding like a better version of every salivated-over R&B dude on “So Good,” and sings a flirty, upper range baby blues about running back to an ex-lover on “Shoes.” The latter, like “You and I,” is gorgeous mid-tempo soul, calling upon past decades (doo-wop and smooth ’80s R&B, respectively) without sounding dated. This is Ambrosius’ strength: like fellow R&B aesthete Terius Nash, she is a prescient and gifted songwriter, carrying a torch for the genre’s craftsmanship as it is reshaped over time.